Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Back in Chicago (Road Trip 2024)

On our way out to Nebraska we decided to spend a couple of days in Chicago, a city I lived in for two of the richest years of my life yet haven't seen for 16 years. Growing up in the Midwest it loomed large in my imagination, especially at a time when several beloved movies of my generation from The Blues Brothers to Ferris Bueller's Day Off were set there. When I finally got to visit in high school and in college, I fell in love. Living in Chicago only deepened that love, and when I was a grad student at the University of Illinois after moving out of Chicago, I made the trek up interstate 57 as often as I could. 

After that, a strange thing happened: I spurned Chicago for New York City, the place I worked for the past thirteen years. I used to resent the condescending attitude of New Yorkers to "the second city" when I lived in the Midwest, but I slowly began to adopt it myself. Today I am reproaching myself for this, since I have had an absolutely delightful day here. My children had never been before, and they absolutely LOVE it. They have called it "New York but clean" and "New York but chill." While Chicago has a tough spikiness, it lacks the overbearing neuroses that hang in the air in the Big Apple. As I get older my tolerance for managing other people's anxieties has frayed to the breaking point. People in New York desperately need to get a dose of Midwestern reserve. 

Today has included some old stomping grounds, as well as things I never did when I lived here. On the former count, we spent the morning in Hyde Park and on the campus of the University of Chicago, where I excitedly pointed out locations of major and minor events in my young life. On the latter count, we went to the top of the Hancock Building (I know it's not called that anymore, but whatever) and took at architectural history boat tour on the river. Both let me see a city I thought I knew with new eyes and appreciation. It also didn't hurt that in between we ate Chicago-style dogs from Devil Dawgs. 

For most part I have been quietly pleased with how the city has matured since I lived here from 1998-2000. Hyde Park in particular feels safer and more economically stable, as do the surrounding neighborhoods. Driving up Stony Island I marveled at all the new buildings and flourishing businesses. The experience really shows how much all the Fox News propaganda about Chicago is lying. Yes the city has plenty of problems, but it has figured some things out that its supposedly superior cousin New York could learn from. Putting trash in alleyway bins is probably better than dumping it on the street, for example. Trees can, you know, shade the sidewalk in the summertime. These facts and the Fox propaganda bullshit are good examples of how you shouldn't always believe what you hear. 

Monday, July 15, 2024

West to South Bend (Road Trip 2024)

Today my family began our trip out to Nebraska from New Jersey by driving out to South Bend, Indiana. We are going to spend a couple of days in Chicago next, but this was as far as we thought we could get without exhausting ourselves. We also like South Bend (college towns are the best) and know a hotel here with a good hot breakfast. When you travel the same stretch of road so many times, you figure out important information like this. 

It's a much nicer hotel than what I would normally spring for, but we have credit card rewards points that get it for us for free. This is a far cry from my childhood vacations, often spent at low-slung cheap motels on the roadside with hard mattresses and sandpapery sheets. I've found classing it up helps morale among the troops after a hard day on the road. 

My kids are getting older and one dividend is that they demand fewer bathroom breaks. We made it all the way to South Bend only stopping three times: once in the morning for gas, once to eat lunch, once to gas again in the afternoon. This also meant that I had less of a chance to see what was going on in the areas we traveled through. For that reason I am not sure how much I can trust my observation that there was a real decrease in the amount of visible MAGA stuff in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. I noticed a farmer with a Trump sign, a pretty elaborate "God Family and Guns" truck decal, and that was about it. There was a Cybertruck with Texas plates and a "Legalize Recreational Plutonium" magnet, but the political valence of that one was hard to parse. My gut tells me that Trump's appeal among his former voters is waning at the edges and this confirms my suspicions. 

While I was on the road proper I marveled at the beauty of some underloved landscapes. The mountains of Central Pennsylvania are quietly gorgeous, for example. The fields and farms of northern Indiana sure look pretty in the evening light, too. 

Now that I have been living in the Northeast for thirteen years, I get a little bit of a shock when I return to my Midwestern stomping grounds. I do not mean this as a judgement, but an observation: people in the Midwest do not seem to put much care into their clothing and looks. In my short time I've seen grown men in tube socks pulled up to their knees, women in ugly "crop pants" paired with the 90s "Rachel" haircut, and scores of people wearing what look to be dirty, unwashed t-shirts. People in general also look like they are taking less care of themselves than they ought to. Now I know going too far the other way leads to narcissism, but the average Midwesterner looks like the "before" image on a makeover show. 

That might sound mean, but I'm from the Midwest and I can say it! Also, that lack of care in personal appearance is the less savory outgrowth of one of the best Midwestern qualities: an aversion to bullshit. I am looking forward to a break from the status-obsessed Northeast.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Hitting the Road

I have neglected this blog for the past few weeks by concentrating on my Substack instead. That's where I am writing more things about the political moment, and well, that's been a busy beat lately. I have shifted this blog into mostly being about music and culture, and the "listen throughs" I've been doing of legacy artists has been a fun way to focus things. I am doing another one come autumn on Richard Thompson, but in the meantime I've had to figure out what I want to write about. I am realizing that the stresses of the current politics news will burn me out if I'm not careful. I am heading off for a road trip next week, so I will turn this site into a travelogue.

My inspiration to do this came from one of my nerdiest fixations: reading 19th and 20th-century travel writing. I have my hands in two separate research projects involving travel writing as a source base and as a kind of scholarly Stockholm Syndrome I can't stop reading this stuff. One of those projects centers around travel writing in the 1970s with the theme of "finding America." After the tumult of the 60s many wondered what had happened to the country and its identity, and went to find it in the out of the way places on what William Least Heat Moon called "blue highways." My own writing over the next two weeks might hit on similar themes of evaluating the state of the nation in an uncertain time. I'll be going to big cities as well as small towns, but almost completely within the Midwest. Maybe someday I will attempt a full cross-country trek. 

As a bonus, here's some of my favorites of the travel writing genre outside of the 70s that aren't household names that I would recommend. 

Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas

Two summers ago my favorite read was Frederick Law Olmsted's account of a trip across Texas in the 1850s. It brought a different time and place to life while also being a fascinating document of Northern disdain for life in the South on the eve of the Civil War. My interest had been piqued years ago when I was living in Texas and a highly fatuous colleague who was way into being Texan said he hated it. If that kind of Texas Uber Alles blowhard disliked the book I knew it must be good. I have a love-hate relationship with my former state of residence, and this book gets and the state's heritage of oppression and Philistinism that is represented well in the hate column for me. 

Tony Horwitz, One For The Road

A friend loaned me this one back in grad school and I had a wild hair to read it again this spring. Horwitz later became famous for his American history-themed travelogues like Confederates in the Attic. His first is still my favorite, though. In the 1980s he was living in Australia as an expat journalist, and decided to hitchhike across the entire Outback. As you would imagine, this was quite a challenge. In the process, however, he meets quite an array of characters that make you think the Mad Max films are close to being documentaries. The book reminds me of one of my favorite things about travel: seeing some really weird shit you'd never be able to anticipate.

Henry David Thoreau's travel writings

I kinda liked reading Thoreau in high school, but stopped thinking about him after. A few years ago someone convinced me to read all of Walden, and I was suddenly hooked. Thoreau understood one of the key questions of modern life right at its inception: what is necessary to live? He did not put creature comforts high on the list, but he did include nature. Apart from Walden, Thoreau's other book length works were travel accounts, only one of which (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) was published in his lifetime. Two others, Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, came after his death based on unpublished writings. All are worth a read because he chronicles the early stages of industrialization and its impact on natural landscapes and our relationship to them. 

Joan Didion, South and West

Here's another work unpublished at the time, an account of travel in the early 70s, mostly through the deep South. Didion is probably my favorite essay stylist, and her tart observations hit just as hard here as in her published works. This book is also an interesting artifact of the South in the period right after the Civil Rights movement. I also appreciate that instead of fetishing the "blue highways" like so many other writers, she touches on the small pleasures of interstate highways and Holiday Inn swimming pools. The search for authenticity is the bugbear of too many travel writers.

Monday, June 24, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Four: Many Rivers to Cross

After Schmilco, Wilco took another recording hiatus, waiting three years to put out a new record. In the interim Jeff Tweedy was busy with his own solo work, which would inform the work that followed with Wilco. The band's last three records, in keeping with precedent, sound little like each other. From writing these retrospectives on legacy artists I've come to expect a really fallow period. Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Bob Dylan all hit some epic low points in the 80s that lasted for years. Even Bruce Springsteen spent the first half of the 1990s in the wilderness. Wilco has avoided this so far. Perhaps this is the result of record companies no longer expecting fresh product every year and thus allowing Tweedy and co to have more time to craft their work. In any case, it's rare for a group that's been around almost 30 years to keep making new music I listen to out of excitement, rather than obligation. 

Ode to Joy, 2019

This is probably the Wilco album I've listened to the least, and for reasons not entirely reflective of the quality of the record. By the time this album came out my listening habits had fully assimilated to streaming. I listen to full albums less than I used to, and am more likely to throw on a playlist Frankensteined together from the songs I am currently digging. I streamed this album when it came out, but didn't buy it (a first for for a Wilco album), listened a couple of times, and then forgot about it. In the age of streaming this is a common experience for me. It comes from not having the impetus to play full albums over and over again, but also from having so many options. Unlike other sad middle-aged dads, I listen to lots of new stuff, and I almost consider it a duty not to lean on listening to my favorite old artists all the time. 

Like Schmilco, this is an understated affair with some crankiness in the lyrics. It makes me think the album title is some kind of deadpan joke. Wilco has really scaled down the musical pyrotechnics, to the point that it sounds like are intentionally holding back. I felt that with Schmilco and I am feeling it even more with Ode to Joy. Both are definitely vibes albums with the whole worth more than the parts. Nevertheless, I really dig "Love is Everywhere (Beware)" and "Before Us." 

A friend pointed out to me that Ode to Joy came after Tweedy's Warm and Warmer albums. His creativity is getting spread out, and the jury's out to me whether this is giving Tweedy artistic inspiration for Wilco or whether it's watering down his Wilco work. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Cruel Country, 2022

When I heard that Wilco was going to put out a double-album of more country-inflected music I have to say I was pretty excited. It wasn't because I have been yearing for a return to "Casino Queen" and "Passenger Side," but more because it would means getting to hear something radically different from them. I was not disappointed, and this album broke through my streaming-era allergy to listening to albums in full. I spun it throughout the summer of 2022. The song "Cruel Country" in particular spoke to me, as I listened to it in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision and a mass shooting at a 4th of July parade in suburban Chicago.

To get back to my rivers theory of rock music, Wilco drew more from the roots river on this album than they had since Being There. Listening to it again, however, I noticed that despite the album's title, the music is still mostly grounded in their work since Schmilco. There's the same intimacy, personal approach, and emphasis on mood over hook. There also just happen to be some steel guitars.

I listened to it for this project as I did a bunch of household chores and gardening on a Sunday, which was the perfect accompaniment. Like a lot of Tweedy's recent music, this is unabashadly the work of a middle-aged dad who gets stuck in reflection and worried about the future. Let's just say....I get it. I'm a teacher, which means the summer can be a time of paralyzing mental anguish because my brain is running overtime with less to distract it. I can get into a doom spiral, and two summers ago the gorgeous instrumental coda to "Many Worlds" would snap me out of it. 

I will fully admit that my love of this album is highly subjective. I love country music and am a worried dad so this is catnip to me. It's also a great example of how a non-country band can cut a country album without it being forced, corny, or subpar (Elvis Costello, I'm looking at you!) Like all double albums it has its peaks and valleys, but that's how I like them.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Cousin, 2024

When I heard Wilco's newest had been produced by Cate Le Bon my ears perked up. She cut my favorite album of 2022 (Pompeii) and promised to bring something fresh to the table. Wilco had also been making all of their records themselves, and while artistic control is a good thing, sometimes big artists need someone else to step in and call them on their bullshit. Knowing her work and Wilco's I also knew it would be a good match.

I really like this album, and like Cruel Country I listened to it a lot as an album instead of just cherry-picking my favorite tracks for playlists. For awhile this year it was my morning train commute listening, so I associate it with that uncanny moment of stress and relaxation before the day truly begins. Based on the lyrical themes, that's appropriate. There is a lot of mental anguish here, including a straightforward discussion of whether to continue taking depression medication. The worry about the future of the world evident in the last two albums is pronounced here as well, especially on the harrowing "Ten Dead." 

A big difference here from the albums that preceded Cruel Country is that, like The Whole Love, pop singcraft is higher in the mix along with the experimentation. "Evicted," for example, is a shimmery song with catchy hooks that I've been listening to a lot. "A Bowl and a Pudding" has the repetitive, Jim O"Rourke repeating patterns reminiscent of Wilco's early 2000s apex. The welcome warmth (pun intended) of "Soldier Child" and punkiness of "Cousin" make them favorites on this album as well. 

It's defintely worth your time, and I can't wait to hear these songs live tonight.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

So that's it for The Whole Wilco, but I think I saw they have an EP coming. I'm sure I will listen to it the day it comes out. 

Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Three: New Beginnings

After Wilco's miracle run of albums from 1996 to 2004 they waited three years before releasing another studio recording. It came with a new lineup and new sounds, but never would Wilco scale the heights it had once occupied. That's the thing I used to focus on, at least. Nowadays I am more able to appreciate the experimentation and capacity for change here. 

Sky Blue Sky, 2007

This is the first studio album with the lineup of Tweedy, Stirrat, Kotche, Jourgenson, Sansone, and Cline, the same lineup the band has today. I had seen and enjoyed this lineup live, and probably set my expectations for this record too high. Their last two albums had become almost a part of me, and while I thought this was a good record, I didn't think it came close to pantheon status. Is that a ridiculous standard? Probably.

In the ensuing years I've mostly isolated some of my favorite tracks to throw onto playlists. In fact, "Impossible Germany" may be my favorite Wilco song ever. It certainly highlights the virtuosic flair that Nels Cline brings to the proceedings. Listening to this whole album in one go for the first time in years, I am struck by how great his playing is throughout. Sky Blue Sky sounds like the best 70s art rock album I'd never heard before. I still would not put this in the pantheon, but I'm realizing I was far too critical back then.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Wilco, 2009

Releasing a self-titled album this far into a band's career is a real choice. It struck me kinda funny (to quote Bob Dylan) at the time, but now I think I get it. The "new" Wilco lineup is back for this album, but over the passage of time that "new" version has become the band for the majority of its life. The title seems to be saying "This is what Wilco is now, take it or leave it." The album even starts with a song called "Wilco" about the band, pledging to be a shoulder to cry on for the listener. It feels both serious and a tongue-in-cheek joke and I love it. 

When this album came out I played it a lot and it lived in my car for some time. For that reason I was shocked on this relisten to not know as many of the songs as I assumed I would. At the time I thought of this album as a return to songs over musicianship, something I thought the new lineup had unbalanced. It might be that in the interim that I have been listening to more Zappa, jazz, prog rock, and Beefheart, but I missed the musical flourishes of Sky Blue Sky listening to this one. 

When the songs hit, however, they are great. "I Will Fight" is a Wilco fave, along with the title song. When they miss, the misses are more noticeable. "You Never Know" has a slight stab at politics and reassuring the younger generation, but the last nine years make this song sound quaint, and even a wee bit insulting. Even at the time I thought it was a little clunky. 

Nevertheless, it's still a good album. Wilco's never put out a bad one, not something I can say about the other legacy artists I've covered. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

The Whole Love, 2011

This album did not grab me at all when I first heard it, and is probably tied with Ode to Joy for the least listened-to Wilco album for me. Today hearing the opening song again I wondered why my 2011 self had shit for brains. "Art of Almost" kicks things off in an experimental mode, departing from the more straight-ahead sounds of the self-titled album. The 70s art rock touches from Sky Blue Sky are evident here, as well as the new dimensions Nels Cline brings. 

When I first heard this one I definitely gravitated to "The Whole Love" as a favorite song. It has a bright boldness to it, bursting with joy in a way few songs do for a band so studied in the moods of melancholy. On my relisten I enjoyed the song even more. I also found myself connecting with songs I'd overlooked before, like "One Sunday Morning (A Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" which reminds my favorably of "Muzzle of Bees," and the brooding "Rising Red Lung." I enjoyed "Standing O" back in 2011, and find myself liking it even more now. 

All of this raises a question: why are my evaluations of this set of albums so wildly different than what they were at the time? Some of it has to do with my expectations, which were silly in their demands. Wilco's four albums before these literally changed my life, but that wasn't just about the music. It also had to do with my stage in life. Youth brings emotions to everything, especially music. Wilco was there for me in a transitional time, and it was something I shared with my close friends at the time. As I moved away from that world physically and emotionally, there was no way another Wilco record could ever mean what it once did. Once you hit 30, a part of your soul dies. You start to feel less, which is both a blessing and a curse. Now that I am pushing fifty I can hear this album and really dig it.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

A Little Mini-period

So when I was putting this series together, I had a hard time periodizing the records from Wilco's current lineup. I realized after consultation with a friend that the their records fit into three periods, but one of those periods is really short and I didn't feel like inflicting three separate posts on you. SO: I will put two albums together as a kind of middle bridge to Wilco's last period, a caesura if you will. What's a caesura? It's a really fancy word I heard a pompous British academic use at a conference once. Look it up, I know I had to.

Star Wars, 2015

When Wilco released this one digitally I got excited and confused in equal measure. What the hell is going on with that title? Why is it so short?  I was glad to be getting new music after a long four year hiatus at least. (I was unaware of Jeff Tweedy's personal challenges at the time, which would have made me understand things better.) 

When I heard the wild guitar sound at the start I got interested. Remember, in the ensuing years I had become a fan of Zappa and Beefheart and prog and I was ready for it to get weird. This album feels unmoored, a trip into space, both inner and outer. When the album hits "Random Name Generator" there's killer riffs, too. That song is the one I keep going back to the most. 

While your mileage may vary with Star Wars, it does represent an admirable quest for change and new directions. So many musical artists get stuck in a rut, but so far Wilco has refused to merely repeat its past. The Whole Love could've provided an easy template for the band's future work, but Tweedy and gang refused to stick to it, to their credit. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Schmilco, 2016

I group this album together with Star Wars because they were recorded at the same sessions at Wilco's studio in Chicago. Both albums also feel like detours and digressions from the main road meant to explore different directions without forging a brand new path. While Star Wars is not one of my favorite albums of Wilco's, it revived the interest I had been losing. For that reason I was on top of Schmilco when it came out as if I was back in 2004 again. 

I noticed right away that things were much more personal and stripped-down. The album art implies this is Tweedy exposing his pain to make music his kids can groove to, and maybe it is. The tone is hushed and stripped down, the electric guitars here more for texture than pyrotechnics. Some of the songs don't quite take off, but I consider this one more of a vibes record. It's not exceptional, but it's still worth listening to. "Cry All Day" and "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" really grabbed me on this listen. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

After three albums of the new lineup they hit their mark with The Whole Love. After that, they spent some time on the backroads. As we will see in the last installment, Wilco will leave this time of experimentation by boldly shooting off into new directions. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part Two: The Only Band That Matters

Historically few rock bands underwent a transformation like Wilco's. Starting with Summerteeth they fully moved on from their early sound and entered a realm of daring experimentation. Their fight with their record company made them a cause celebre all while the group was torn apart by personal and creative tension. Out of this maelstrom emerged some of my favorite music ever. 

Now might be the time to explain my "rivers theory" of rock music. The fertile valley of rock music, like Mesopotamia, lies between two mighty rivers. The first river has its sources in the older forms of American music: blues, country, R&B, jazz, and folk. Lots of music floats on this river, including the whole classic rock tradition. The second river has its origins in the Velvet Underground (this is not an exaggeration) and is the river of punk, new wave, and "modern rock." When Wilco began they were very much in the first river, but in this era of the late 90s and early 2000s, they jumped over into the second river (although they had plenty of traces of it already.) Lots of bands change their sound, but they almost never jump rivers. That's part of what made this music so thrilling. 

Summerteeth, 1999

This is the only Wilco album I did not listen to at the time of release. I had really liked Being There, but at this time I was fully immersed in the second river of rock, and had little time for the first. I had no clue that Wilco had migrated over with me. I picked it up after a year of obsessively listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and was immediately struck by its uniqueness in the band's oeuvre. More than any other, this is Jay Bennett's record. It turned out that the ass-kicking guitar player also knew his way around a mellotron. (At the time I had a joke based on the SNL "more cowbell" bit where I imagined Bennett in the studio yelling "I have a fever, and the only prescription is more mellotron!) 

I also must admit, this album scared me a bit. "Via Chicago" and "She's A Jar" reference domestic violence in disturbing ways. Those songs and "How to Fight Loneliness" and others were much too accurate evocations of deep depression, something I was fighting at the time. I would save this album for my moments of depression when I could cope by wallowing deeper. I have a clear memory of a really bad day walking under a gray Midwestern sky in winter, listening to "She's a Jar" and feeling like I wasn't alone. 

Listening to it again today I was reminded that there are also plenty of upbeat songs, like "Candyfloss" and "I'm Always in Love." In a subversive mood the album begins with "I Can't Stand It," which melds gorgeously bright pop melodies and sheen with lyrics of existential despair ("No love is random as God's love," "Your prayers will never be answered again," etc.) This song and others have Beach Boys Pet Sounds touches. Wilco was now swimming in rock's second river, but also sidetracking into the tributary of pure pop music. 

Because I first heard this album after I had heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and after Jay Bennett left the band, it always makes me wonder what the band would've sounded like had he stayed. Now is maybe the time to mention that I had a chance to meet and have dinner with Jay Bennett. He was the close friend and musical collaborator of one of my friends and was living in the same area at the time. I must admit I was a bit star struck to be in the same room as him. but he was very friendly with me. Not only that, he was hilarious and a great storyteller. I still remember the tale he told me of Ian McLagen trying to get his organ back from Rod Stewart. I could see how someone with such a dominating presence might be seen as a threat if he joined a band with a different leader. In any case, I am sad that he is gone. 

This record still takes my breath away, I just wish it was a little bit shorter.

Rating: Four and a half Tweedys

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, 2002

This is less an album than a totem of my existence as a human being on this planet. That's not a florid exaggeration, it's how much this record means to me. I put it on like I would put on an old sweater. Every note is lodged in my memory and every one speaks to me. 

What's strange is that I was intimately familiar with it already before its official release. The music press kept reporting on how Warner Brothers, Wilco's label, refused to release it for not being mainstream enough. After that, the band put their album out online, quite a new thing to do in 2001. A friend burned it onto a CD (remember doing that?) and I bought the official release the minute it hit the stores out of solidarity with the band giving the corporate music biz the middle finger. Even if the music had not been as great as it was, it was still thrilling to be part of what felt like a rebellion against the overwhelming trend of cultural homogenization. 

From the first bars things are different, and special. Original drummer Ken Coomer had been pushed out for Glenn Kotche, whose innovative rhythm patterns immediately make themselves known. They let you know that this is going to be an experimential album, but "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" also lets you know that this isn't just self-indulgent noodling, there are SONGS here. The drums, droning sounds, and opening lyrics "I am an Americian aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue" combine to form one of the most striking and confident albums openings ever. 

YHF's context matters, too. While the songs were written and recorded before 9/11, the vibe and lyrics spoke to me about the country's situation, especially "Jesus Etc" and "Ashes of American Flags." They got at my feelings of melancholy, confusion, and anxiety in that rotten, awful time. Much like Radiohead's early 2000s records, Wilco had already put their finger on a growing sense of dread about the modern world that the post 9/11 environment would confirm.

But it's not all sad dirges, either. "War on War" has a melancholy cast, but its up-tempo admonition that "You've got to learn how to die/ If you want to be alive" became a kind of personal mantra at this time. I emerged through a pretty dark tunnel of depression between YHF and A Ghost Is Born, and I came to the realization that I really and truly wanted to embrace life, but always with the knowledge it was going to end someday. 

Maybe this album wasn't part of your voyage of personal discovery, but it was for me. Plus, "Heavy Metal Drummer" is the best song ever written about nostalgia. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

A Ghost is Born, 2004

As much as I love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, sometimes I wonder if I like Ghost even more. From a personnel standpoint, it's a strange record. Jay Bennett is gone, Mikael Jorgensen is in, but Pat Sansone and Nels Cline were not part of the recording. I saw that expanded lineup live the summer this album came out, and it seemed to make Ghost a kind of artifact.

The Krautrock touches via producer Jim O'Rourke are even more pronounced here. I can hear the ghosts of Can and Neu!, especially on "Spiders, Kidsmoke" and "Muzzle of Bees." Those songs, along with "Hummingbird" and "Handshake Drugs" make for a formidable core to this album. Around this solid center there are diversions, like the Neil Young guitar of "At Least That's What You Said" and the drone noise experiment that closes out "Less Than You Think." When the straightforward, anthemic "Late Greats" emerges from the tinny feedback to end the album it's a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one. This song, about the great musicians who never make it big, always felt like a bit of a self-commentary. Was this album Wilco's embrace of obscurity? After all, their biggest selling record was one rejected by the label for being too obscure. 

This album also came out right around the time Jeff Tweedy went to rehab. Some songs, like "Hell is Chrome" and "Company in My Back" explore what Neil Young termed a "bad fog of loneliness" in the raw way of Summerteeth. Then again, "Company in My Back" rolls into the exuberant "I'm a Wheel," and "Handshake Drugs" has always radiated a vibe of contentedness to me. Tweedy's line delivery of "If I ever was myself I wasn't that night" is still one of my favorites. 

On the eve of the album's release I wondered if Wilco could sustain its artistic high after Bennett's departure. Turns out they could, and even explore new horizons in the process. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

Kicking Television, 2005

Live its musical ancestors, Wilco was required by the law of rock to release of double live album at some point. They indulged us with some live shows in their native Chicago. It would also be the first album featuring Pat Sansone and Nels Cline and first after Leroy Bach's departure. A Ghost Is Born would be the one Wilco album since AM without a hotshot guitarist in the band. 

I had seen this lineup live in Milwaukee in the summer of 2004, so this album was not much of a revelation to me. That live show really blew me away, and I could see right away the difference Cline's playing brought to the table. I'm periodizing this album with Wilco's trinity of breakthrough records because it's a sort of victory lap, and those songs constitute the bulk of the setlist. 

It's an objectively good album, but I know in my heart I've seen Wilco put on live shows more electrifying than what's here. I had already seen the new lineup before this one came out, so that was not a selling point. Nevertheless, it's worth a listen if you haven't had to privilege to see Wilco in the flesh. 

Rating: Five Tweedys

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Whole Wilco Part One: Out of the Ashes

[Editor's Note: I have enjoyed writing these series where I listen to a legacy artist's music album by album and write about them. The readers I care about the most (my friends who for some reason tolerate me) are into them too and so I will keep writing them!]

So far in my catalog-spanning collection of series on different music artists I have been sticking to the Boomers: Dylan, Springsteen, and McCartney. I wasn't going to write another one for awhile, but Wilco is coming to town and I want to see them again. That got me in the mood to relisten to their catalog. There are only a couple of other bands that have ever meant as much to me personally, and since I was there at the start of their career (unlike the other artists I've covered), this will also be an exercise memoir/shameless autobiography. Also, unlike those other series, I have listened to all of their albums already, many many times. This will be less a voyage of discovery and more a look into what one of my favorite acts means to me and why. I know that as a white, educated Gen X dad from the Midwest I am pretty much a walking stereotype when it comes to Wilco fandom, but I really think it's about more than that. 

Also, a quick note: I will only be covering albums with the Wilco name on them. I am planning a couple of appendices, one on Uncle Tupelo, the other consisting of solo and side projects. My reasons are less than scientific; I just wanna hear all of their main records before I see the show and I've only got a week!

Alright, on with the show.

A.M., 1995

Before there was Wilco, there was Uncle Tupelo. I became a fan right at the end when I picked up Anondyne after reading an article about them in Request magazine. Here were a bunch of guys from the small town Midwest who loved both punk and roots music and had decidedly progressive politics. I knew right away that these were my people. I played Anondyne to death, and to this day it takes me right back to the spring of 1994 and my last weeks of high school. 

When Uncle Tupelo broke up and Wilco emerged with Jeff Tweedy and Son Volt under Jay Farrar, the comparisons were inevitable. I bought this album and Son Volt's Trace on the same visit to the record store (in this case a Best Buy in Omaha), and immediately preferred the Son Volt record. I had liked Farrar's songs in Uncle Tupelo better, and still to this day "Tear Stained Eye" from Trace is one of my pantheon songs. 

Once I stopped comparing those two records, and my Wilco fandom deepened with later releases, I returned to A.M. and realized I had missed a lot. It's more uneven than the records that follow, but the gems are truly glittering. "Casino Queen" is a barnstorming, foot-stomping rocker that I had the pleasure of hearing live back in the early 2000s. "Box Full of Letters" shows off Tweedy's punky roots with some gleefully crunchy guitars. "Passenger Side" hits on a traditional country theme (drunk driving) with both humor and melancholy. (When grad school friends get together and play guitars and sing it always gets featured.) There are some lovely ballads too, like John Stirrat's "Just That Simple" and Tweedy's "Blue Eyed Soul." Admittedly, there are also clunkers like "I Thought I Held You." 

Listening to this album in 1995 I figured that Wilco were going to be one of many bands in the alt-country scene, carrying on where Uncle Tupelo left off. At the time my music tastes were starting to move away from roots more into the Bowie-Velvets-punk side and I put the CD aside after a few initial listens, unaware of what was coming next. After their next record no one would be making Son Volt comparisons ever again. 

Rating: Four Tweedys

Being There, 1996

I hadn't given Wilco much thought but bought this CD after 1. seeing the video for "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" and 2. noticing that it sold at a discount because it was a double album priced as a single. I know I sound like Grandpa Simpson right now, but in those pre-streaming days these were real considerations. 

The first seven songs on this album really throw down the gauntlet and announce that the band has grown a lot since their debut. I noticed right away with "Misunderstood" that Wilco's music still had rooty vibes, but was also sounding more experimental. "Far Far Away" gets more country, but has similar themes of small town isolation. In my 20s and 30s when I moved around a lot I would listen to this song as a newcomer in a strange town and feel a little comfort. All of a sudden from this relaxed, contemplative vibe we get two stone cold rockers, "Monday" and the aforementioned "Outtasite (Outta Mind.)" "Monday" sounds like a lost track from early Skynyrd (a big compliment in my book) and "Outtasite" brings in the punky feel of Uncle Tupelo's loudest bangers. After that we get a detour back to the country, and a good one, in "Forget the Flowers." Then comes "Red Eyed and Blue" backed with "I Got You," long a mainstay of the band's live shows and probably the highlight the first time I saw them back in 2002. The first song starts mellow, a rumination ont the rock and roll life that seems to ask if all of the effort and pain is worth it. (Yes, this is a Gen X band in the 90s, folks!) After that laconic reflection comes the stomping of "I Got You," as the band has decided that, nope, getting to rock is worth it! Awake, Lazarus!

The songs that close out the first disc aren't as thrilling, but they are still good. It's important to remember that this album was first envisioned and released as a double, with each disc having a different feel. For the longest time, I listened a lot to the first disc, and far less to the second. At a party in grad school a friend put the second disc on, saying it was his favorite, and I started listening to it differently after. (I will avoid the old man rant about how physical media allows us these moments of discovery.) 

"Sunken Treasure" starts things off on a somber note similar to "Misunderstood" and like it a comment on being "out of tune" with the world. "Kingpin" is a hand-clapping, foot-stomping country trash classic, and one of the rare rockers on the second disc. If the first disc is the interstate, this one is more the backroads. It ends with "Dreamer of My Dreams," a raucous hoedown but also the last full-on country fried song the band would put out under their own name for twenty-five years. 

Although the grunge explosion had happened, by 1996 it was fading and rock music's place in the pop music scene was well on its road to decline. I sometimes listen to this album as the last truly great classic rock record. As "I Got You" reminds us, it was the end of the century.

Rating: Five Tweedys

Mermaid Avenue, 1998 (with Billy Bragg)

I wasn't sure whether to include the Mermaid Avenue albums in this series or not, but I am because they are a kind of swan song for Wilco as a band that could be described as "alt-country." In case you don't know, on these albums Wilco partnered with Brit singer Billy Bragg to craft versions of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. In many respects it was a throwback to Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar's interest in the politics of the Popular Front era. The combination of Bragg, Wilco, and these Woody lyrics works incredibly well, which made this record a critical darling of the time. "California Stars" became a mainstay of Wilco's live shows and "I Guess I Planted" and "Way Down Yonder in a Minor Key" have become big favorites for me. The irony with this album is that artists often put out covers albums to familiarize themselves with the music that influenced them. In this case Wilco is giving it the old country try one more time before taking on far different musical adventures. 

Rating: Four and a Half Tweedys

Mermaid Avenue Volume 2, 2000 (with Billy Bragg)

This album comes chronologically after Summerteeth, but it was recorded at the time of the first effort with Billy Bragg and fits this era of Wilco's development. (Sometimes the proper chronology is not a literal one when it comes to writing history!) It feels more like a helping of leftovers, but anyone who's eaten their Thanksgiving meal over and over again for a few days after knows that leftovers can be pretty damn good. There are not as many classics here, but I really enjoy "Airline to Heaven." 

Of course, in between the first and second of these albums with Bragg, Wilco took a radical turn. More on that in my next installment.

Rating: Three and a half Tweedys